Genetic autism predisposition linked to higher self-harm rates, study suggests

People with a strong genetic predisposition to autism are more likely to report self-harm and suicidal thoughts even if they have not been formally diagnosed, research suggests.

Scientists from the University of Cambridge have also found those who carry a number of genes associated with autism are more likely to have experienced childhood maltreatment.

Based on the findings, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, the team urged the Government to “provide far greater support for autistic individuals and for those with a high number of autistic traits”.

Previous research has shown autistic people experience higher levels of self-harm and suicidal thoughts, but the Cambridge team say their findings hold true even for those who carry genetic mutations linked to autism but have not been diagnosed.

But Dr Varun Warrier, a postdoctoral researcher at Cambridge, said their observational study only points to a correlation between genetic likelihood for autism and negative life events, adding: “We do not know yet if the former causes the latter.

“We know that genes partly influence how many autistic traits you have, and some autistic traits such as social difficulties may lead to a person being vulnerable to maltreatment.

“This research highlights the risks of such adverse outcomes for those with a high number of autistic traits, if adequate safe-guarding and support aren’t provided.”

The team analysed genetic data from 100,000 people from the UK Biobank project – an online database of half-a-million people and their medical conditions.

According to the team, those with the highest genetic predisposition to autism were, on average, found to have a 28% increase in childhood maltreatment and a 33% increase in self-harm and suicidal thoughts, compared to those with the lowest genetic predisposition to autism.

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen (pictured), director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge, said: “Our work highlighting unacceptably high rates of suicide in autistic people was published five years ago, yet almost no new support has been provided.

“Governments need to provide far greater support for autistic individuals and for those with a high number of autistic traits.”

Prof Baron-Cohen suggests interventions – such as access to an individual support workers, mentors, supported employment schemes and peer support groups – could help improve the wellbeing of autistic people.

Schools may also need to increase safe-guarding given the risks of victimisation, he adds.

Around one in 100 people in the UK is believed to be autistic.

According to autism research charity Autistica, autistic adults who do not have a learning disability are nine times more likely to die from suicide while children with autism are 28 times more likely to think about or attempt suicide.

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